Neuroscience has the keys to happiness

Who doesn’t want to feel happy? It is likely the most universal desire and the primary driving force at the root of most human behaviors. The Dalai Lama, Tibeten Spiritual Leader and Nobel Laureate, has stated his belief that the purpose of life is to be happy. So, if we all want to be happy, why do so many find it impossible to actually get there?

There is clearly a problem: Depression rates are increasing rapidly and, according to the National Institutes of Health, antidepressants were the most prescribed drug among 18 to 44 year olds from 2005 to 2008. Antidepressants are arguably an improvement over depression, but they bring with them a host of side effects.

Okay, how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? Ta-da! Science to the rescue! Neuroscientists (specialists in brain activity) have decoded the mechanics and chemistry of the brain enough that you can learn how to code it. There are all kinds of exciting possibilities because the brain is ‘plastic.’ No, that doesn’t mean it was extruded by a 3-D printer, it means your brain is malleable – you can intentionally change the way you think.

One of the things you can do is affect how you feel by directly altering the chemical messages zipping around in your brain. Happiness is a product of a cocktail composed primarily of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.

Dopamine is associated with mood, reward, and positive reinforcement. Oxytocin is commonly known as the “bonding hormone,” and also moderates fear and anxiety. Serotonin is associated with mood and behavior, and is suspected of playing a role in depression. Endorphins, often referred to as “runner’s high,” inhibit the transmission of pain signals, and also bring feelings of euphoria like the morphine it was named for.

Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. You don’t even need to understand any of that last paragraph. Because here’s the part where you get to learn which buttons to push so that you can make all that happen for yourself. If that’s all you want, take the shortcut and just read the first sentence of the following instructions. The details that follow are optional.

Pursue goals that have meaning to you. Some goals – getting a degree – are a means to an end. In this case, perhaps, to eventually get a job and make money. Others are more focused toward personal growth or personal satisfaction, like learning to play guitar as a hobby. Both are worthy, of course, and pay off in different ways, but when you’re in pursuit of something personal, you get an extra boop on the dopamine reward button.

Make decisions. If you study because you ‘have to’ study, it makes your brain feel out of control and stressed. But if you actively ‘choose to’ study, it increases the feeling of being in control, lowers stress, and elevates mood. Actively choosing also earns you another shot to the dopamine reward button, making the activity more enjoyable.

Invest in relationships – real ones with meaning and connection. Reach out and touch someone, for real (consensually, of course). Humans are social creatures, and we need physical contact. Touching people, even casually, stimulates the production of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which calms the amygdala, the “fear center” of the brain. Hugs are even better. And spend time with people who make you laugh, bringing on the feel-good endorphins.

Get moving! Regular aerobic exercise reduces depression. Think: anything that makes you sweat and breathe hard – it doesn’t have to be rocket science. There’s no worry of side effects or drug interactions, and it can reduce or eliminate the need for medications for many. Physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, decreases stress, improves learning and memory, and improves self-image.

Label your feelings and define why you have them. Emotions, especially strong, negative ones such as fear and anger, activate the amygdala. That phrase “got their hackles up” pretty much describes much of the activity of this “fear center” of the brain. Putting a name to those feelings gets your logical brain involved, so it can calm the jumpy fear-ball. Suppressing those emotions doesn’t get the same effect – the amygdala’s hackles just stay raised. Defining the reason for the feeling raises self-awareness, giving you the power to take some action.

Practice gratitude. Results vary, but at least once a week spending some time feeling grateful elevates mood in a number of ways. Feeling gratitude stimulates the production of dopamine – the reward shot – and stimulates the hypothalamus, improving sleep, lowering stress levels, and increasing overall well-being. In addition, the search for something to feel grateful about increases emotional intelligence, in turn making it easier to feel gratitude.

Practice compassion and generosity, or at least expose yourself to it. It’s not surprising that being generous activates the pleasure centers of the brain. It is somewhat unexpected, though, that seeing someone else engaged in an act of generosity does so as well. This pleasure response to being generous has been seen in children as young as two years old.

Practice mindfulness. You knew this one was coming, right? It’s not hard, just spend a little intentional time every day being really present, in the moment. Except it’s not as easy as it sounds, which is maybe why it’s called a practice. However, the practice can reduce the perception of pain – both the unpleasantness of the feeling and the intensity of pain. It’s been shown to actually grow brain regions related to learning and memory, regulating emotions, and taking perspective. With practice, the fear center grows less touchy, which can lower stress levels and increase physical health.

It seems to be commonly accepted that emotions are outside our control. We have the knowledge, the tools, and they are freely available for the willing. None of this advice is a substitute for qualified medical or psychiatric attention, but anyone can benefit from a little more happiness in their lives.

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